In 1776, a group of wealthy white men officially declared independence from a tyrannical monarchy. This collective of learned individuals stated boldly:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness.
More than 200 years later, many of us are still waiting for the full realization of this cherished ideal, our ears straining to hear freedom ringing from sea to shining sea. The great American fairy tale — that we were all in chains until the Declaration of Independence and the triumphant end of the Revolutionary War, which solidified the creation of this nation — always fails to mention that the United States was constructed to exclude most people from this pursuit of life, liberty, etcetera. Black people remained slaves. Indigenous people had no place in white society. All women were excluded, and only select white women could benefit from the power wielded by their landowning husbands or fathers. At the birth of our nation, very few people living within its borders were actually free.
I am a Black woman. I have a job I love that earns me a good living. I have a family and friends and live in a sleepy suburb along the coast. My life would have been unimaginable to the Black folks that toiled, enslaved, on plantations and in the homes of rich masters. But they are part of the American story too, integral characters that too often fade into the background. They built this country. They yearned and dreamed and pushed for freedom. They fought to bring the nation closer to what its founding documents claimed this land already was: a place where life and liberty were to be cherished above all else. A place where all men were created equal.
The relationship Black people have with this country is complicated. But we don’t learn about the depths of this complication in school. We learn that slavery happened, though we aren’t made to look closely at its abject cruelty. It was just a thing that occurred a long time ago and was absolved by Abraham Lincoln. We don’t learn that he was no great champion of Black people. We only learn about the Emancipation Proclamation, and not even that it only freed slaves in the confederate states. And after that? We aren’t taught about Reconstruction’s shivering crescendo and how, sparkling with promise that wouldn’t be rekindled until the 1960’s, it ended with abrupt finality, plunging Black folks into the dark ages of Jim Crow. All of this is glossed over as we join our teachers in leapfrogging from colonial times — the British are coming! — to the end of slavery — let freedom ring! — to the Civil Rights Movement — I have a dream, y’all! And now, here we are, living in an entirely civilized, post-racial America — we’re so great that we don’t see color anymore!
I was raised in a military family, and a fierce love of this country was the undergirding of my entire childhood. I still feel that love today, though not as pure as it was when I was a child waving a flag at airshows, because I see the object of my affection much more clearly now. This is my country, though the Founding Fathers never meant it to be mine. It is imperfect, unequal, and unwelcoming to anyone that doesn’t fit the description of the Founding Fathers themselves: white, male, rich. I’ve been told that if I don’t love this country, I should go back to Africa. I’ve been told that slavery was a long time ago and I should get over it. I’ve been told racism no longer exists in this country — BECAUSE OBAMA — and that I am the one who seems to be practicing the dark arts of reverse racism. I have watched as Black men and women are killed in the streets or in their own apartments by police officers whose sole job is to protect and serve the community. And why? Because Black people were never supposed to be members of the community. We could live in America — actually, it was compulsory — but we couldn’t be Americans. The founding documents weren’t talking about us, though the success of the nascent nation depended on us: our labor, our sweat, our tears, our babies, our blood.
Today, 244 years after an Independence Day that did not include people that looked like me, I assert my own independence, and I claim this country as mine. I stand on the backs of giants, the generations of Black folks that toiled and fought and stretched their fingers towards a freedom that still lies on the distant horizon for me, hundreds of years later. But I’m closer than they ever were, because of them, and the next generation will be closer than I am, because of me. That is America. This striving to be better, freer, more truthful about who and what we are. That is the spirit I celebrate today, and it’s what I honor in the work that I do, creating change that will make this country closer to what it claimed to be in 1776.
We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…
We aren’t there yet, not even close. But I celebrate us — those that were never supposed to be part of that so-called perfect union. I honor those that made it possible for me, a Black woman, to be sitting in my own dining room, tapping away on a computer while my dog snores beside me. The people who looked like me are mostly hidden in our history, but nothing we celebrate today would have been possible without their invisible labor, their struggle, their thirst for freedom that I still feel at the back of my own throat, an itch that never goes away. Tonight, while I watch fireworks explode in the distance, I will think of them, running towards the North with only the stars to guide them.
That is the America I celebrate.